More hassle than crying toddlers: air travelling with HIV.

Travelling with HIV

Positive travels, or anything but?

In these days of terrorism scares, ‘Lost’ flights and Russia doing whatever the hell they want, flying can be quite daunting.

Throw in an incurable disease –no, not Ebola- and even the most experienced traveller may think twice about grabbing their passport to explore the world. That’s most certainly how I felt a few months back, when given the chance to go to Africa with work.

A once in a lifetime (half-priced) opportunity, I said yes before  thinking about the logistics of it all: vaccines, medication, what-ifs (…I get injured and need to go to some shabby hospital), etc.

Fuck!, I’m going to Africa. And don’t you act so blasé, only one in four of our group had been there. Exciiiitiiiiiing.

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

So there I was, having told Yes to that trip. I could not possibly back out, not without a very good reason, and I wasn’t keen on using my “Listen, there’s a killer within me” line for fear of it being misunderstood. The new Charles Manson, I am not.

I pondered, for a few weeks, whether or not to disclose to my boss about my condition. My workplace is a very liberal environment: should I decide to disclose, I doubt anyone would have a problem with it. But I didn’t disclose when I started working there (for my diagnosis happened during limbo, that time between the ‘You got the job’ and your actual first day)…

I would have looked a fraud! Can’t have that. In the name of privacy and human rights and what-if-they-decide-to-fire-me-because-of-that-lie madness, I decided not to tell. I WAS a fraud. I had to spend the next 5 months preparing a trip and lying through every steps of the way.

“Any medication?” Noooo.
“Any condition?” Noooo.

“Any guilt?” Oh. Errr. YES.

But not so much, alleviated by the fact that I was undetectable and healthy. I had been on work trips before (albeit, not to anywhere requiring a visa) and it had been FINE, so what the heck, I’ll lie (by omission) my way through it and that’s that!

Oh well, who hasn’t, that’s how we get jobs in the first place, right? Fake it till you make it. Ah, if life was so easy that I could fake being disease-free until I truly was. *Looks up to the sky in search of a shooting star.*

I’m not that shallow, I don’t have a type really…

With it being taken every 3 months; you’d think I’d know my blood type.
No. Never have, although I am sure I have been told at least once. What’s that for?

“Just in case we have a problem and need to do a blood transfer within the group. We’re going to some remote places, I don’t trust their blood supply.”

Say what? Oh, well, how likely is THAT to happen? Not very. Though if it did, should I be the recipient, it wouldn’t matter. Should I be the donor; well, I wouldn’t. I’d do the big reveal with jazz hands there and then. EVERYONE HAS AIDS!

Not sure how that show would go down in Africa.

Aaaaaanyway, what I had signed up to was not only a great trip in a great location, no, no. I had signed up to half a dozen injections. Robin, to the travel clinic!

Rabies, Tetanus, Polio, Tuberculosis, Yellow Fever. You name it, I had it. The vaccine that is, not the disease. (Well, like, you’re writing this, so, yeah, like, I GUESSED THAT MUCH. Yeah, alright smartypants!)

My consultant wasn’t too keen about a Yellow Fever vaccination. “You… can’t really cancel now, can you?” No M’am! Live or die, I was going to get this done. She feared the side effects on my frail, disease-ridden body. Turns out, with a CD4 count above 200, Yellow Fever vaccine and HIV get along just great. And if my CD4 was below 200 I’d have other things to worry about anyway! Nevertheless, she recommended I saw a specialist at the nearby hospital. It would have cost twice the price of doing it at the GP, arguably only paying extra for the added blah-blah I would have to endure. So, as the cheapskate sensible man that I am, I went for the GP practice.

No side-effects. Nothing. For none of the vaccines. Not even a bruise, or a headache, or an Alien bursting out of my chest. Nothing. Literally. Anticlimax.

Trust no one.

Next was the practical step of transporting medication. A quick check on HIVTravel and AIDSmaps revealed that my destination did not prevent people with HIV from entering their land. Hallelujah. That would have been awkward. “Oh hey, you just travelled 3000 miles with your group? Too bad, go back home now.”

From the get go, there are 2 entities you should not trust:

1) Airline staff. Sure, they’ve never lost your luggage when you were disease-free. Sure, they’re fully trained, and most of the baggage handling is automated anyway. So, obviously, the chances of your luggage getting lost on that particular trip are… THROUGH THE ROOF.

One set of medication in your suitcase. Another set in your hand luggage. Yet another set in a condom up your arse! Just in case!

I don’t mean to be alarming, but better safe than sorry. 2 sets of pills is a minimum. Luggage gets lost everyday, and we can’t do without medication for that long. A weekend away, sure, you will still have enough in your blood to get you through. But anything else and you need to be cautious.

2) Airport staff. On our side, fine. Well, some are brain-dead and power-hungry, but they behave themselves. On the other side, not always so much. Corruption is rife in some African countries (and beyond). I had been warned: they may search through ANY luggage, make a fuss about ANYTHING they deem suspicious, and, more annoyingly, ask for a BRIBE to release said suspicious stuff.

Damn! My weird-looking pills with funny 123s on them might arouse suspicions.

2 ways to handle this:
As a law-abiding citizen, an official travel letter from your consultant and your drugs in their normal packaging should do the trick. Well, legally speaking, yes, though that may not save you from a rotten apple saving for a new TV.

So I went with option 2: the vitamin boxes. Sainsbury’s has a great multivitamins combo with pills looking exactly like Eviplera. Jackpot. Just had to substitute the vitamins with my drugs and kaboom. Should anyone check, all they’d find was harmless. Duplicated in each set of luggage, in case I had to give one up.

Through security, through the airport, onto the bus. Job done. Down boy, the worst is done. Nothing lost, nothing binned.

I’d like to use my Call-a-friend

On the ground, following the regimen undetected was easy. I had long perfected the art of opening my keyring pill holder, dropping the drugs in my palm, transferring it to my mouth whilst pretending to rub my face. Job’s a goodie. Not that it mattered much as we were all popping down a few pills daily, from the anti-malarial to the aspirin. One more, one fewer, who’d have known?

But worst-case scenarios have to be planned. What would happen if I was injured, or shot, or stung by a giant mosquito; and rushed to hospital, unconscious and drug-free? Arrrrrrgh.

No! I have read H2G2, I know the main rule to travelling to alien land: Don’t panic.

I had a plan. It was all ready, set, go. I would take my drugs with me and, should anything happen to me; they would call my next of kin. He would then talk to the doctor and reveal my condition and treatment. Dum dum dum. And they would look after me better, knowing of the HIV, and not tell anyone from my party. There’s nothing else to add.

This was a genuine plan B. Stop laughing.

Much ado about nothing.

I made it through and made it back. I had done it! Travelled to a really remote place, kept everything under wrap, and had still managed to follow my daily regimen, unnoticed, unaltered.

In the aftermath of diagnosis, travel restrictions had been on my mind. Admittedly, not on day one. Because priorities. But it was part of the reasons I waited to start medication. I wanted to cram in as much travelling as I could whilst it was still hassle-free.

And whilst I may still think twice about going to, say, Dubai, this experience has given me confidence. If you found this page wondering about your next trip; fear not. The world is our oyster. And whilst our passenger within may not be a fancy pearl, it doesn’t have to stop us from rolling on and rocking on!

Medication may affect my lust, but not my wanderlust. 

PS: Don’t panic! The vast majority of countries are FINE. And I’m surely not advocating lying about your health conditions for every trip / destination. Just like with alcohol, it’s all about good judgement and moderation.

6 thoughts on “More hassle than crying toddlers: air travelling with HIV.

  1. Aaron
    September 3, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Loved reading this, I LOL’d 😉

  2. harleymc
    September 5, 2014 at 2:55 am

    I suspect there is a message critical typo in this post. In the section about vaccines the safety of yellow fever vaccination is discussed for “VL (viral load) above 200” whereas the embedded link talks about 200 cd4 tcells with not mention of viral load.
    It also begs the question of why “And if my VL was below 200 I’d have other things to worry about anyway!”

    1. Living HIV
      September 5, 2014 at 10:18 pm

      Oh boy, yes, thank you. I clearly was lacking sleep when I wrote that. All corrected now.

  3. Dalek
    September 18, 2014 at 4:19 am

    I have been at the other end of the spectrum not travelling ANYWHERE since I “found out” (ahem) and pissing my boss off in the process and I don’t even have to go Africa! Sooooo….. LOVED reading this! 😀

    1. Living HIV
      September 18, 2014 at 9:22 pm

      I can’t do without traveling, but then again I mostly stick to Europe, so it’s all good. Usually. Hope you take the leap though, it’s just fun pretending to be a spy smuggling in vital docs! 😉

  4. AK
    February 25, 2015 at 2:45 am


    I have been terrified of travelling ever since I found out about the little bug(ger)…. But finally earlier this year I took a leap, stopped pissing my boss and moved off my but*.
    The only thing I don’t miss: the pounding heart when you pass through any of those hub airports in the middle east 😛

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